Non-fiction – memoir; Ultimo Press; 182 pages; 2021.
Depression is commonly referred to as the ‘black dog’. In Heidi Everett’s memoir, My Friend Fox, her mental illness is essentially a ‘fox’, a wild, misunderstood animal often viewed as an outsider, a creature of terror and beauty.
In this evocative book, illustrated with beautiful line drawings by the author, we learn what it is like to be a resident on a psych ward, where every facet of your life is controlled by rigid medical protocols and unwritten rules.
Everett, who was born in Wales but emigrated to Australia with her working class parents as a child, has a complicated diagnosis:
I am psych patient number 25,879* (or part thereof). Age: 24. Primary diagnosis: schizoaffective. Comorbidity: major depression, ? juvenile autism. Seems to enjoy music, art. No dependents. No further use for a name.
She spends her time in and out of psychiatric institutions. On one occasion, safe at home where she lives with her beloved dog Tigger, she goes on the run, believing she’s being spied on by cameras in the wall. It’s the middle of winter, cold and dark, and she’s dressed in nothing more than jeans and a light shirt.
I’m not dressed to go out tonight but I can’t go back. This is an emergency; I’ve got to get away. I quickly walk up to the end of the road, turn left and keep walking. Tigger and I won’t stop walking for the next two weeks.
Interspersed with Everett’s terrifying account of running from her own paranoia and her adventures in and out of psychiatric care, are her memories of a happy childhood in rural Wales contrasted with her troubled adolescence in suburban Australia (when her illness began to manifest itself).
She often speaks of her love of the countryside and her admiration for foxes, in particular, the urban foxes she comes across in Melbourne. She wends the tale of a suburban fox on the run throughout her narrative, a metaphor for her own life, misunderstood and never quite able to mix with other people.
She also writes movingly of the love she has for her dog and of her obsessive hobbies — music and drawing — and the ways in which they give her life meaning and take her outside of her illness.
Her lyrical prose is filled with original, occasionally breathtaking, descriptions — a fox she meets has “gemstone eyes”, for example, while the wind blows “a vomit of sea in its mouth” and “the trees begin a free jazz session of syncopated dripping” after a rainstorm.
My Friend Fox is quite an astonishing read — short, powerful and fable-like. The depiction of mental illness and the impact it has on one person’s life is arresting and illuminating. And despite the trauma at its heart, this survivor’s tale brims with optimism — and hope.
This is my 19th book for #AWW2021
11 thoughts on “‘My Friend Fox’ by Heidi Everett”
This sounds interesting, but … I’ll see. It’s probably one for me to notice if I happen upon it, rather than one for me to actively seek out.
Truth be told I only bought it because the edition is so gorgeous. It’s a small hard cover (without a dust jacket) and we don’t get many of them here in Australia. Plus the drawings inside are lovely.
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I find that writing about being in a mental hospital really unnerves me. I read Janet Frame’s autobiography and found it terrifying.
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Fortunately, the author balances out those terrifying elements with the story of the fox. And, to be fair, I found her time on the run, thinking people were after her, more scary than her time in an asylum.
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It sounds like a really tough gig…
Urban foxes in Melbourne ate my kids’ chooks. They will not be forgiven.
In the Victoria I grew up in ‘madness’ was almost unimaginable, ‘mad’ people were sent to Ararat. Now I am much more aware of the mental illness so many people, mostly quietly, deal with. Committal can be terrifying for young people, but what else can be done, placement in the community seems chronically under-resourced.
Country foxes in Koonwarra ate our ducks, so I understand !
There’s a great quote in this book about how asylums were viewed in the past: “In the early days of asylums, patients were diagnosed by popular vote”. She says husbands or families sick of wives, daughters, sisters were hidden away in asylums under the guise of “madness”. I think there’s a lot of truth in that.